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Uncorked: Something to Yearn For

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Ann Colgin's wines are rich, concentrated, and voluptuos, the long list of supplicants waiting for a place on her mailing list attests to their cult status

I HONESTLY can't think of many people I envy, but if I had to come back as someone else, I think it would be Ann Colgin. No, wait; on second thought, I think I'd come back as Ann's husband, Joe Wender. It's not just that she's a babe, or that she has houses in Napa and Bel Air, or that she knows practically everybody you've ever heard of, or that she's a serious philanthropist. That's the least of it.

When Joe met her at an Henri Jayer dinner at Spago, all the Goldman Sachs honcho knew about her was that she worked for Sotheby's as a wine expert. Waiting for Spago's notoriously slow valet parkers, he chatted her up enough to pave the way for a phone call. "Joe's a Francophile," Colgin says. "He wasn't much interested in California. He told a friend that he'd met Ann Colgin, and his friend said, 'Oh my God, she makes that wine that's impossible to get.' Joe had no idea." The next time he saw her, for a dinner date at New York's Le Bernardin, Wender ordered a bottle of Colgin Herb Lamb from the wine list. The carte du vin was decidedly French when he proposed to her the following year at Paris's three-star L'Ambroisie.

As I recall, she was wearing white shoes when I first met her, a decade ago at the Steeplechase in Nashville, Tennessee. I seem to remember gingham and a big floppy straw hat. A Texan who attended Vanderbilt, she seemed right at home with Nashville's horsey set. That hot afternoon, getting my first taste of her signature brand of earthy, down-home glamour, I learned that she was an art and antiques expert who'd fallen in love with the NapaValley and its wines in the late '80s. Coincidentally, I'd recently returned from Napa, where I had tasted the first vintage of her eponymous cabernet sauvignon-the first time I had ever tasted a wine out of a barrel, and still one of my most vivid wine memories. I didn't realize then that I was witnessing the birth of a legend. That first vintage, the '92, and several subsequent vintages were made from purchased grapes in a leased cubbyhole of the Napa Wine Company that was about the size of a sauna-not - exactly a glamorous provenance. It was made by Helen Turley, who was on the verge of being dubbed the Wine Goddess by Robert Parker. I remember being amazed that I could detect - blueberry, among other flavors, in this cab, which was richer and more concentrated than any I'd ever tasted. I've since lost my notes, but I can still conjure that taste. Since then, Colgin has become famous-alongwith Bryant, Harlan, and Screaming Eagle-as one of the cult wines that redefined the concept of Napa cabernet. Ten years later I find myself racing through a series of steep switchbacks up Pritchard Hill in Colgin's little Mercedes (my girlfriend, Anne, sitting in my lap) and finally arriving some thousand feet up the side of the mountain at the gate of the new property, with its dramatically situated Mediterranean house and adjacent circular winery overlooking Lake Hennessy and the NapaValley. The winery is a little bit like a boutique version of Lafite's round chai. And here's the other reason I really envy Joe Wender: beneath the house, with its dramatic views and art treasures, the wine cellar is stocked not only with verticals of Colgin but also with drool-inducing, large-format rarities from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhone.

Colgin finally has a facility that seems adequate to her ambitions (although I'd opt for a more dramatic name than Estate IX - she and Joe were married here on 9/9/00). The 120-acre property has 20 acres of vines, planted in 2000, which will significantly boost the production of wines bearing the Colgin label without nearly taking care of all the supplicants waiting for a slot on Colgin's mailing list. Colgin started out buying cabernet grapes from the Herb Lamb vineyard on the eastern hillside above the town of St. Helena. In 1996, she purchased Tychson Hill, a sloping five acre parcel north of St. Helena that was planted in the nineteenth century by pioneering winemaker Josephine Tychson. Colgin restored the modest nineteenth-century farmhouse, which she now calls home, and replanted the vineyards under the supervision of her superstar vineyard manager, David Abreu. (Honest, there really are superstars of viticulture.) The two-and-a-half-acre plot now produces a brooding, complex cabernet that always tastes utterly distinct from its sibling, thanks to a unique dark soil type that the plot shares with nearby Grace Family Vineyard. A third Colgin bottling, a Bordeauxstyle blend called Cariad, comes mainly from Abreu's Madrona Ranch Vineyard, on the steep slopes west of St. Helena. Cariad is usually the most Bordeaux-like and restrained of Colgins, though it often shows an exotic spiciness early on. Finally, there are the incredibly promising cabs and Syrahs from the new Estate IX.

Since Helen Turley's departure in 1999, all of these wines have been nurtured by winemaker Mark Aubert, a former protkge of Turley's who achieved acclaim at Peter Michael. The transition seems to have been fairly seamless in terms of Colgin style. Like all of the cult wines, Colgins are rich and concentrated and voluptuous in texture; the tannins, compared with those of traditional Bordeaux or old-style Napa cabs, are much softer in their youth. But I usually find Colgin less flashy and flirty than other cult cabs, a little more mysterious and reserved on first acquaintance. For pure, decadent pleasure I recommend the new Syrah, which debuted with the '02 vintage and is so sexy and voluptuous that it should probably be banned by the ATF.

Enviable as Ann Colgin's life appears, it may not be quite as perfect as some of her wines. For all the couple's travels, husband Joe insists that all luggage be carry-on. "I haven't checked a bag in nine years," she says. "I used to have a bag just for my shoes." Confidential t0 A.C.: I'd let you check as many pieces as you wished.

I Although you won't find Colgin wines in stores, they are available at many fine restaurants. To get on the Colgin Cellars waiting list for future vintages, mail or fax your name, address, telephone number, fax number, and/or e-mail address to: Colgin Cellars, PO. Box 254, St. Helena, CA94574. Fax: 707-963-0996.

 By Jay McInerney